Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

program notes: fire

Saturday May 16, 2009
Sunday May 17, 2009

Christopher Theofanidis Radiant Mind, Sound Investment commission (world premiere)


Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor


de Falla Ritual Fire Dance from El amor brujo


Ginastera Variaciones concertantes

orchestration: 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon; 2 horns, trumpet, trombone; timpani; harp; strings

The music of the award-winning American composer Christopher Theofanidis has been performed all over the world. Recently, he has written new works for the American Ballet Theater, the Houston Grand Opera and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Tonight, LACO will present the world premiere of a work Theofanidis composed for the Orchestra’s Sound Investment patron commissioning club. This piece, Radiant Mind, will be the latest work sponsored by the Sound Investment group, which has helped the Orchestra contribute a new work to the chamber orchestra repertoire each year since 2002. Theofanidis, who holds degrees from Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston, has a style that can be described as neo-Romantic, but with a sincerity and transparency that allows a contemporary relevance to come through. His 2000 piece, Rainbow Body, is one of the most oft-performed orchestral works written by a living composer.

In his first meeting with members of LACO’s Sound Investment, Theofanidis talked about his inspiration for the work: “The title Radiant Mind is taken from Buddhist philosophy, in which a mindful state is sometimes compared to the sky on a clear day, our thoughts like clouds arising and then floating away. With this image of the mind as a cloud-dotted skyscape as a reference, I’m planning for the commission to explore several shifting musical ideas against a somewhat more stable background of harmonic and melodic colors. I should say also that I’m excited to see how this general concept develops as I begin working with it.”

We don’t often think of Robert Schumann as a fiery composer, but he was extremely passionate about his art form, and there were times when he became nearly obsessed with a genre, or an idea, or even a type of ensemble. For example, he once devoted an entire year to writing more than 100 songs, focusing on this genre almost exclusively. Then there was 1841, during which time Schumann turned his focus to the orchestra and the solo piano. Schumann began several piano concertos—one in E-flat major, one in F major, and one in D minor—before he finally completed one. In a flurry of orchestral creation, Schumann composed the Overture, Scherzo and Finale (which LACO performed earlier this season at September’s Marriner Gala) and the Fourth Symphony, and he revised the First and Third Symphonies. In addition, he wrote his Phantasie in 1841, a single-movement work for piano and orchestra. This piece was so promising that wife Clara encouraged him to expand the work into a full-fledged piano concerto. Clara—a talented pianist and composer herself—had a very diplomatic and convincing way of suggesting such things to Schumann. He did in fact undertake the project and completed the second and third movements of the Piano Concerto in A minor in 1845. Ferdinand Hiller, to whom the concerto was dedicated, conducted at the 1846 premiere in Leipzig and Clara was the soloist.

In keeping with traditional Classical concerto form, there are three movements in this piece. The first, marked Allegro affettuoso, begins with a stroke in the timpani and strings followed by a descending line in the piano. The main theme, introduced by the oboe and other woodwinds, is then taken over by the piano. Schumann’s sensitivity to the piano’s unique abilities enabled him to write a solo part that is interesting and independent, yet fully integrated into the symphonic framework. In the second movement, Schumann shows his gift for lyricism, his ability to turn even simple themes into delightful, graceful figures. The last movement follows without pause, and turns the A minor of the opening movement into A major. The movement sails to a close as the soloist and ensemble weave virtuosic lines around one another, trading the spotlight until the very end when they come to a unified close.

Manuel de Falla, a native of Cádiz, Spain, drew often upon the musical traditions of his homeland in his compositions. Unlike other composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov, who appropriated a Spanish style from an outsider’s point of view, Falla captured the passionate fire of Spanish music in a way no foreigner ever could, and in doing so, brought the true flavor of these traditions to a world audience.

El amor brujo, or “Love, the Sorcerer” was originally commissioned in 1914–15 as a gypsy piece ( gitanería ) by Pastora Imperio, who was herself a famous gypsy dancer. In its original incarnation, the work was written for chamber orchestra and voice. This early version was only marginally successful. Manuel de Falla recast the work in 1925 as a ballet for full symphony orchestra. In addition, there were three songs featuring a mezzo-soprano. This version achieved greater success.

The scenario of the ballet centers upon Candelas, a gypsy girl who is in love with a man named Carmelo. Their union is not peaceful, however, as Candelas is haunted by the ghost of a former lover. The music draws upon the traditions of Andalusian gypsy music, but manages to be something wholly original as well. Francisco Rovira Beleta made a version of this ballet for film in 1967. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it won a national award in Spain. Another filmed version of the ballet was directed in 1986 by Carlos Saura. Saura included some spoken dialogue in this version, but remained faithful to Falla’s score.

In the section heard tonight, “Ritual Fire Dance,” as in most of Falla’s works, some of the expected clichés of Spanish music are hinted at rather than explicitly stated. The work is not scored for guitar, nor does it use castanets, but the quality of this Spanish musical tradition shines through in rhythmic vivacity, dancing energy and a fiery spirit.

Alberto Ginastera was an Argentine of Spanish and Italian descent. Studying both in Buenos Aires and in the United States, his musical influences were varied, including the native tangos of Argentina and the quintessentially American style he encountered while studying with Aaron Copland in the 1940s. His output—like that of many composers—can be separated into three chronological and stylistic categories. In his “Objective Nationalism” period (the 1930s through 1948), his use of Argentine folk elements was concrete and uncomplicated. The next period, “Subjective Nationalism,” lasted from 1948 to 1958 and here, Ginastera began to integrate folk elements in a more obscure fashion, a trend that continued in his final period, “Neo-expressionism” (1958–1983).

Ginastera composed the Variaciones Concertantes in 1953, during his middle period. It was a tumultuous time for Ginastera, as difficulties with Perón’s rule led to the composer’s resignation as the head of the Music Conservatory of the National University of La Plata. Regardless of the troubles he was having with the government, Ginastera’s appreciation for the music of his homeland never waned. Rather than explicitly stating folk materials, Ginastera, like Falla, strove instead for an atmosphere indicative of his homeland. In Variaciones Concertantes, one of the most striking musical effects is the harmony of the open-string guitar, here played by the harp. It is this opening gambit that forms the basic thematic material for the work. Eleven variations follow the initial statement, and in each variation, one instrument is singled out. Ginastera bases the musical material of the variation on the idiomatic qualities of that instrument. There are embellishments that appear throughout, including motor-like tapping notes and jazz-inspired flourishes. The last variation, an appropriation of the malambo, a gaucho dance, is colorful and energetic, a suitable end to our tour through Ginastera’s Argentina and our 40th anniversary season.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD

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